Helen Garner – Violence and Visibility

Published May 15, 2015 by Fat Heffalump

Have any of you read Helen Garner’s recent piece in The Monthly about the way older women in society are treated?  I have, and I can’t leave it alone.  At first glance, I was on board with Helen’s issue, in that yes, it is absolutely true that society in general is terribly patronising and discriminatory towards older women.  But the more I read and the more I thought about her piece, the more I realise that there is a whole lot more that is going on than just an older woman speaking up about cultural attitudes towards older women in general.

Firstly, we can’t go past her public assault of a teenage girl on a Melbourne Street.  I don’t care how annoying teenage girls are being in public, nothing, NOTHING excuses anyone from violently pulling their hair.  Was the girl being annoying and rude – probably.  Does that make it acceptable for Ms Garner to “seize her ponytail at the roots and give a sharp, downward yank” so much that the girls “eyes bulged and mouth was agape”?  No it does not.  There has been a lot of discussion in the media and feminist writing about how inappropriate New Zealand Prime Minister John Key was in his pulling of a café staff member’s ponytail was, yet I’ve not seen one other person step up and say that Ms Garner’s behaviour was unacceptable yet.  People applaud her in the comments on the piece for this behaviour.  She has even been sharing this anecdote to others, and receiving laughter for it, even though she says herself “technically I had assaulted the girl.”  Technically nothing, Ms Garner, you assaulted that girl.  In no way excusing PM Key, his actions were inexcusable, but why is it unacceptable for him to put his hands on a woman’s hair in his words “playfully” but it’s OK for Ms Garner to violently yank the hair of a teenage girl in public?

I think Anne Theriault said it best in this tweet:

We are living in a time where there is a rising rate of violence against women.  The rate of women being murdered by their partners or ex-partners has shot up over the past months.  Women are being harassed and abused via online hate mobs to the point that they have to leave their homes, change careers and radically alter their lives.  Women are even being murdered for standing up about violence against women, and yet we have a public figure who for the mere reason that she’s an older woman, is excused, nay celebrated, for assaulting a teenage girl in public.  Violence against women, no matter who the perpetrators are, or who the victims are, is never acceptable.  Not two days ago there was an article claiming that women must claim a 50% responsibility in domestic violence and feminists spoke up and said “There is never an excuse for violence against women.” yet the same people are cheering Helen Garner on for “Showing it to that teenage brat!”

What is that teaching teenage girls?  Moreover, what is that teaching teenage boys?  In fact, I wonder what she would have done if it had been teenage boys behaving rudely in public?  How would people react if a 71  year old man violently yanked a teenage girl’s hair?

My second issue with Ms Garner is her outrage at being “rendered invisible by age”.  This sentiment has long bothered me, because it shows a blatant unawareness of privilege, and privilege across the spectrum.  It must be tough being rendered invisible by your age, but you have had the privilege of being visible in the first place.  Ask any fat woman, woman of colour, disabled person, poor person or any other marginalised person how they feel about being rendered invisible by age and it’s highly likely they will point out that they were never visible in the first place.  Or in rare cases, if they did have visibility, it wasn’t the nice kind that gets them served in shops, the best seat in a bar or doors held open for them – it’s the kind of hyper-visibility that comes with abuse, ridicule and discrimination.

Ms Garner complains that waiters move her and her friends to the back of a restaurant, at the uncomfortable seats where nobody will see them.  As a fat woman, I’ve never been seated anywhere else, unless I politely but firmly request it.  She complains that people are patronising to her in airports – spend a day with people with disabilities and see just how patronising folk can be to them.  She dares any blood technician to not look her in the eye while drawing blood – ask a black woman how many people look her in the eye when interacting with her.

The reality is, suddenly finding yourself invisible as an older woman is very much a mark of privilege.  Being blissfully unaware of that privilege is pretty insulting to those who have never had it.

To me, the ignorance of privilege and the public assault of a teenage girl are both examples of a distinct lack of self awareness that unfortunately crops up time and time again with white, thin, affluent, able-bodied women in feminism.  Ms Garner, and other women like you, you’re not invisible to those of us you’ve never noticed yourself.

So yes, I agree that in our culture, women are ignored and discriminated against more and more as they get older.  As I am now in my 40’s, I see the vulnerabilities that lie in my future, and I also see the devaluation of older women as members of society.  Older women, particularly older single women, are at the highest risk for poverty and homelessness.  Older women are more likely to be abused and/or neglected by both relatives and professional carers as their health declines with age.  Older women are discriminated against in the workplace more than younger women or men of any age.  These things need awareness and to be addressed.  But we also need to be aware of when we give passes to behaviour from privileged women that we would not tolerate from men.

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